Exclusive: The hidden security clauses of the Iran-Saudi deal
Hasan Illaik, The Cradle, March 12 2023 — The Cradle reveals confidential clauses of the agreement struck between Tehran and Riyadh, which was reached courtesy of Beijing.
Under Chinese auspices, on 10 March in Beijing, longtime regional competitors Iran and Saudi Arabia reached an agreement to restore diplomatic relations, after a break of seven years.
In its most optimistic reading, the deal can be seen as a historic strategic agreement, reflecting major changes underway in West Asia and the world. At worst, it can be characterized as an “armistice agreement” between two important rivals, that will provide a valuable space for direct, regular communications.
The Sino-Saudi-Iranian joint statement on Friday carried strong implications beyond the announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh, severed since 2016.
The statement is very clear:
- The embassies of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic Iran will reopen in less than two months.
- Respect for the sovereignty of States.
- Activating the security cooperation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran signed in 2001.
- Activating the cooperation agreement in the economic, trade, investment, technology, science, culture, sports and youth sectors signed between the parties in 1998.
- Urging the three countries to exert all efforts to promote regional and international peace and security.
At first glance, the first four clauses suggest that the Chinese-brokered deal is essentially a mending of diplomatic relations between the two longtime adversaries. But in fact, the fifth clause is far from the standard text inserted into joint statements between states.
It appears to establish a new reference for conflicts in West Asia, in which China plays the role of “peacemaker” — in partnership with Iran and Saudi Arabia — in which Beijing assumes a role in various regional conflicts or influences the relevant parties.
Sources familiar with the negotiations have revealed to The Cradle that Chinese President Xi Jinping did not merely coat-tail a deal already underway between Tehran and Riyadh. Xi has, in fact, personally paved the way for this agreement to materialize. The Chinese head of state delved deep into its details since his visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022, and then later, during Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Beijing in mid-February 2023.
More than one round of negotiations was held under Chinese auspices, during which the Iranians and Saudis finalized details negotiated between them in Iraq and Oman, during earlier rounds of talks.
It was by no means a given that the two sides would arrive at an agreement in their last round of discussions (6-10 March, 2023). But the Chinese representative managed to overcome all obstacles between the two delegations, after which the parties obtained approval from their respective leaderships to announce the deal on Friday.
China as regional guarantor
In the past couple of days, much has been written about the strategic implications of a Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian agreement and its impact on China’s global role vis-à-vis the United States. The Persian Gulf is a strategic region for both powers, and the main source of China’s energy supply. It is likely why Beijing intervened to stem tensions between its two strategic allies. It is also something Washington, long viewed as the region’s “security guarantor,” could never have achieved.
Undoubtedly, much will be said about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) “strategic adventurism” and his exploitation of global changes to offset the decline of US regional influence. The rise of a multipolar, post-American order allows traditional US allies some space to explore their international options away from Washington, and in service of their immediate national interests.
Saudi Arabia’s current interests are related to the ambitious political, economic, financial, and cultural targets that MbS has set out for his country, and are based on two pillars:
- Diversifying regional and global partnerships in order to adapt to global systemic changes that will help realize Riyadh’s grand plans.
- Establishing security and political stability to allow Saudi Arabia to implement its major projects, especially those outlines in MbS’ “Vision 2030,” through which Riyadh envisions itself transforming into a regional incubator for finance, business, media, and the entertainment industry – similar to the role played by the UAE in decades past, or by Beirut before the Lebanese civil war in 1975.
In short, regional and domestic security and stability are vital for Riyadh to be able to implement its strategic goals. As such, confidential clauses were inserted into the Beijing Agreement to assure Iran and Saudi Arabia that their security imperatives would be met. Some of these details were provided to The Cradle, courtesy of a source involved in the negotiations:
- Both Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran undertake not to engage in any activity that destabilizes either state, at the security, military or media levels.
- Saudi Arabia pledges not to fund media outlets that seek to destabilize Iran, such as Iran International.
- Saudi Arabia pledges not to fund organizations designated as terrorists by Iran, such as the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK), Kurdish groups based in Iraq, or militants operating out of Pakistan.
- Iran pledges to ensure that its allied organizations do not violate Saudi territory from inside Iraqi territory. During negotiations, there were discussions about the targeting of Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia in September 2019, and Iran’s guarantee that an allied organization would not carry out a similar strike from Iraqi lands.
- Saudi Arabia and Iran will seek to exert all possible efforts to resolve conflicts in the region, particularly the conflict in Yemen, in order to secure a political solution that secures lasting peace in that country.
According to sources involved in the Beijing negotiations, no details on Yemen’s conflict were agreed upon as there has already been significant progress achieved in direct talks between Riyadh and Yemen’s Ansarallah resistance movement in January. These have led to major understandings between the two warring states, which the US and UAE have furiously sought to undermine in order to prevent a resolution of the Yemen war.
In Beijing however, the Iranian and Saudis agreed to help advance the decisions already reached between Riyadh and Sanaa, and build upon these to end the seven-year war.
Hence, although the Beijing statement primarily addresses issues related to diplomatic rapprochement, Iranian-Saudi understandings appear to have been brokered mainly around security imperatives. Supporters of each side will likely claim their country fared better in the agreement, but a deeper look shows a healthy balance in the deal terms, with each party receiving assurances that the other will not tamper with its security.
While Iran has never declared a desire to undermine Saudi Arabia’s security, some of its regional allies have made no secret of their intentions in this regard. In addition, MbS has publicly declared his intention to take the fight inside Iran, which Saudi intelligence services have been doing in recent years, specifically by supporting and financing armed dissident and separatist organizations that Iran classifies as terrorist groups.
The security priorities of this agreement should have been easy to spot in Beijing last week. After all, the deal was struck between the National Security Councils of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and included the participation of intelligence services from both countries. Present in the Iranian delegation were officers from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and from the intelligence arms of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
On a slightly separate note related to regional security — but not part of the Beijing Agreement — sources involved in negotiations confirmed to The Cradle that, during talks, the Saudi delegation stressed Riyadh’s commitment to the 2002 Arab peace initiative; refusing normalization with Tel Aviv before the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital.
What is perhaps most remarkable, and illustrates the determination by the parties to strike a deal without the influence of spoilers, is that Iranian and Saudi intelligence delegations met in the Chinese capital for five days without Israeli intel being aware of the fact. It is perhaps yet another testament that China — unlike the US — understands how to get a deal done in these shifting times.